Playing for Change indeed!

An international musicians’ collective is bringing to the world the rich music traditions of Africa

The power of music to bring people together is astounding. The greatest of such stories today is perhaps of Playing for Change, an international musicians’ collective that firmly believes music can rid the world of forced social boundaries and inequities.

“We started more than 15 years ago producing one documentary - A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians. Now we have more than 200 videos, a touring band and a foundation with over 15 programmes in 11 countries,” says J Marie Jones, director of communications, Playing for Change.

Playing for Change is one of the greatest musical projects of our time curated in video - a work that would later be cherished as part of our greater universal culture. Musicians line up in far reaches of the globe to perform in unison, glimpses from the world’s contemporary music history, moulding a new global identity.

The group just won the unique Polar Music Prize. “We just received the 2019 Polar Music Prize which is known internationally as the Nobel Prize in music. It’s an incredible honour and a testament to the power of music to create positive change,” adds J Marie.

Founders Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke started off as a mobile recording studio in the US in 2002. Playing for Change has since grown so popular that it is apt to say that no musical movement in recent history has helped the underprivileged discover their own musical riches, especially in Africa.

The story began when Mark Johnson discovered Roger Ridley in 2005 in Santa Monica. Ridley was performing ‘Stand By Me’, in so soulful an act that Johnson requested Ridley to perform for Playing for Change, which would be later compiled in Songs Around the World.

“With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Johnson asked Ridley to which he replied: “Man, I’m in the joy business, I come out to be with the people.”

Playing for Change has collaborated with Indian musicians as well. Rajhesh Vaidhya’s veena to Pandit Janardan Mitta’s sitar and the Oneness Choir of Chennai to The Exile Brothers of Dharamsala, it has brought together musicians from across the subcontinent. The Exile Brothers are youth from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts located in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, the seat of the 14th Dalai Lama.


The Exile Brothers readying for a
session at Naddi village in
Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.

This is a welcome change when here in Bengaluru one hears of the police evicting street performers in sheer ignorance and disrespect. 

According to Billboard, Polar prize laureate Dr Ahmad Sarmast, founder of the Afghanistan Institute of Music, credited Playing for Change for being a global project with 15 music schools and programmes around the world impacting the lives of over 15,000 children and their communities. “The Playing for Change Foundation shows how music can be used to inspire, build bridges between people, create positive change and conditions for peace,” quotes Billboard.

Among their noteworthy achievements is bringing to the larger world the rich musical traditions of Africa -- from Baaba Maal of Senegal to Rocky Dawuni of Ghana to Louis Mhlanga of Zimbabwe to Mermans Mosengo of the Congo.

“Through our travels, we’ve learned we’re so much more alike than we are different. There’s only one race - the human race. We all have the same hopes, dreams, needs; we all want to be loved and to give love; No one is more entitled than the other. We have to stop letting the fear of differences lead us,” explains J Marie.

It is not just the street musicians who are part of the collective.

Bono of U2, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones and Stephen Marley -- all come together as part of this admirably purposeful venture. “The great thing about Playing for Change is that it never ends. There are always more musicians to record; more communities and children to impact; more love, peace, and understanding to give,” J Marie clarifies.

The variety of music and the blues the group has helped preserve are praiseworthy in times of political instability and brute populism. That extraordinary talent of free artists like Grandpa Elliot, Keb’ Mo’ and many others contributing to this is surely playing for global change and transformation beyond restrictive borders.

“We have a great group of volunteers in Mumbai, hosting an event for our annual Playing for Change Day on September 21. If anyone would like to get involved, please visit www.playingforchangeday.org/event/playing-for-change-day-india/”, requests J Marie.

Essential listening

1. Stand By Me
2. War/No More Trouble
3. Redemption Song
4. Groove in G
5. Chanda Mama
6. Three Little Birds
7. A Change is Gonna Come
8. Clandestino
9. United (UN project)
10. All Along the Watchtower

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